Western Short Story
One day my grandson came up to me and asked if I ever served in the Army. Before I could answer, he explained why he asked me about my ‘days when I was younger’.
“You see, Grampa, we learned about the Civil War this week in school. Did you know that the war was about Americans fighting Americans? Did you fight in that war?”
I did my best not to laugh. I just thought because he was so interested in his teacher telling the class about the war, that he probably did hear the part about 1861-1865. I may be getting older, but not that old. Maybe it was time for him to learn about the Civil War from where a big part of it took place.
I talked to my daughter and her husband about the idea of Erik, my grandson and I going to visit what some say was the biggest battle of the war, Gettysburg. They readily agreed that it would be a wonderful experience for him.
When school let out for the Summer, I asked Erik if he would like to see where some of the war he had been studying was fought. I didn’t know at the time that an eight year-old could jump that high in the air. It was a good thing that we were outside. It seemed as though he was flying. By the time he came down to Earth,-so-to-speak, I knew it was going to be a trip not easily forgotten.
When we arrived in Pennsylvania we asked around about tours to Gettysburg. We were pleasantly surprised to hear that a tour bus was heading out the next day and could hold the two of us. I don’t know who was more thrilled, Erik, or me. We both had a good night’s sleep and wolfed down our breakfast so as not to be late for the bus to Gettysburg.
We were told that because of the constant running of tour buses, we need not stay with any particular group, and we could stroll the grounds at our own pace. Erik and I looked at each other and without saying a word, we went off to see the monuments to the fallen soldiers.
Except for taking a lunch-break, (I sure did appreciate the chance to sit for awhile,) we continued walking westward to check out the larger monuments silhouetted by the late afternoon sun. I was standing with my back to one of the statues next to a smaller statue, asking Erik if he knew which of these two men were a Union Soldier or a Confederate Soldier. His answer surprised me.
“I think so, but why not ask them?” He said, pointing over my shoulder. Puzzled, I turned around to see two young men dressed in Civil War costumes.
I introduced Erik and myself. I apologized to them if I seemed shocked at first to see them. “I didn’t see or hear either of you come up here. By the way you’re dressed I guess you fellows work here. I’ve never seen a live enactment of the battles here, but I hear that you folks do one heck of a job.”
The Union Soldier spoke first. “Thank you, sir. We do what we believe in. Ain’t that right, Johnny?”
“Yep. That’s right, Smitty.” The Rebel Soldier agreed.
I saw that Erik wanted to ask them something so I suggested that he do just that.
“Why are your uniforms so dirty and tattered? Oh, wait. I think I know. If you guys do this fighting a lot of times, then your bosses would be spending time at the Laundromat.” He laughed, as any eight year-old would, thinking he made a joke.
The two soldiers looked at him, then to me, and back to each other. They shrugged their shoulders in unison. Then decided it wasn’t worth asking about.
The Union man, Smitty smiled at Erik and spoke as softly as he probably would to his own son. “You know, Erik, for a young boy, you sure are pretty much up on things. Are all the boys and girls in your school as smart as you?
Erik stood there, speechless. He didn’t expect to hear something that important to him from a stranger. He was about to thank Smitty when the man turned and pointed over to the two statues I had been looking at and offered, “We rightly don’t know who exactly these two were. We only know about a couple of hundred men here. Of course you can’t forget Old Stonewall or Jeb Stuart.” He whistled low and slowly, then said Whoo-ee that General Stuart sure was someone you didn’t want know if you were from the North.
The Rebel decided to jump in with, “I do know, sir, that each of these guys believe in what they did here.”
“Did here, don’t you mean do here?” I asked.
The Rebel, Johnny, looked confused, but went on about the big and last battle that took place here at Gettysburg. “However ya’ll want to say it, sir. It don’t make no never mind to Smitty here or me. Right, Smitty?”
“The Union man smiled and said, “that’s right Johnny. We do what we need to do.”
I was so caught up with these two men that without thinking about how it may sound, I said, “you two act like the war is still going and you are more like brothers than enemy soldiers.”
They looked at each other and then over to me as if I had two heads. Johnny spoke up.
“Well, sir, Smitty and I are brothers. We was born in Alabama. Smitty here is three years old’rn me. His whole name is Cooper Smithson Barnes. He don’t like nuttin’ about his name but Smitty, and I’m Johnny Barnes. We jest have diff’rent thinkin’s. We surely don’t hate one another.” The onliest reason most folks don’t know we is brothers is cause Smitty here, went to the fancy Union school up north. He was gonna be an officer soes he had to speak funny likes the rest of’m up there. I reckon you know he didn’t make good because he gots the two stripes on his arm and no brass on his shoulders.
I couldn’t let that go. I had to ask what he meant by that. Did they take different sides here to be able to act out their parts better? Is this Johnny guy playing me by trying to act as if he just came out of the hills? I just had to ask.
Before I could say a word, Erik said, “look, Grampa. Look at the way the sun is setting. It is real pretty. Do you want to know why the sun sometimes looks like that?” His eight year-old mind was racing with information. He wanted to impress me and the two soldiers with what he is learning in school. I did not want to stop him, but we did have to head back across the fields before dark. I said to him. ‘Later on, son. I want to finish asking these two men about their jobs here.” I started to say something to them as I turned back to where they were standing. But, they were gone.
Erik said that maybe they thought we were through talking to them and left.
I shrugged my shoulders and agreed with him. As we walked back toward the main parking lot for the buses I asked Erik if he was ready to tell me more about the sun looking different sometimes while setting for the night. He jumped at the chance to tell “Gramps” all about the atmospheric changes that are often created by a combination of things that had me totally confused. I didn’t want to let on to him that I was lost on what he was telling me. I told him that I was proud of him for learning all about what he was explaining to me. While I thanked him for his in depth story, I racked my brain to come up with something intelligent sounding, hoping to convince him I understood everything he said when a Park Ranger approached us. He told us that he was on his way over to us when we turned and headed back. I thanked him for being concerned, then I said we were so busy talking to two of the battlefield actors that time got away from us.
I’m not sure if the Ranger was joking or not, but he informed us that there were no re-enactments scheduled earlier that day.
Erik quickly said, “but, we were talking to two men out there. One was called Smitty and the other Johnny. You must know them.”
The Ranger asked if he could talk to me in private. I said, sure and we walked about ten feet from Erik. I assumed he did not want a little boy to hear something that may sound strange to him.
“Sir, are you sure you were talking to two men? I mean to say that maybe other tourist were in the same area you were. Some people go so far as to dress like the soldiers. I’m sure that is what happened.” He stepped back and pointed to the buses warming up. “I think they’re waiting for you and your grandson.
Erik and I thanked the Ranger and headed for the bus back to our hotel. On the ride back an older fellow was talking to another man about a conversation he overheard between two Rangers. What I heard brought my blood up to an almost boiling temperature and suddenly drop down to where I got severe chills. The older man said, “I’m telling you Ike, that’s what the Ranger said.”
The second man snickered and said smugly, “Give it up Henry. Ain’t no way you are going to get me to believe that one. Are you serious? One Ranger asked the other if he saw the Barnes brothers’ ghosts out there today? Ain’t no such thing as ghosts. Anyway if there were such things… they only come out at night right?
I wanted to tell Mr. Smart mouthed Henry, about what my grandson and I saw today, but then he’d just say I heard the Barnes name from them.
That’s fine with me. No one would ever believe us anyway. Maybe, next year we’ll take a camera. You can bet your granny’s jug of white lightin’ that we’re going back.